We Need the Liberal Arts: Michael S. Smith Op-Ed Piece!

Dear Commons Community,

Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, entitled, Learning as Freedom.  He reviews the importance of a liberal arts education both for our students as individuals and for our society as a whole.   Here is a sample:

“Conservative scholars like Charles Murray, Richard Vedder and Peter W. Wood ask why people destined for low-paying jobs should bother to pursue their education beyond high school, much less study philosophy, literature and history. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel has offered money to would-be entrepreneurs to quit college and focus on Web-based start-ups instead. ..From this narrow, instrumentalist perspective, students are consumers buying a customized playlist of knowledge.

This critique may be new, but the call for a more narrowly tailored education — especially for Americans with limited economic prospects — is not. A century ago, organizations as varied as chambers of commerce and labor federations backed plans for a dual system of teaching, wherein some students would be trained for specific occupations, while others would get a broad education allowing them to continue their studies in college. The movement led to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which financed vocational education, initially for jobs in agriculture and then in other industries.

The philosopher John Dewey, America’s most influential thinker on education, opposed this effort. Though he was open to integrating manual training in school curriculums, Dewey opposed the dual-track system because he recognized that it would reinforce the inequalities of his time.  Dewey asked:

Who wants to attend school to learn to be “human capital”? Who aspires for their children to become economic or military resources?”

Great advice for education policy makers.





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